"Serious questions" about whether vocational qualifications are as good a preparation for higher education as their academic counterparts have been raised by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
A report to be published next week finds that vocational A-level students are less likely than those with traditional A levels to get into a selective university, more likely to drop out and less likely to get a good degree and a graduate-level job.
According to The Higher Education Experience and Outcomes of Students with Vocational Level Three Qualifications, a student with academic A levels is two times more likely to apply to a Russell Group or 1994 Group university - and three times more likely to attend one - than a vocational A-level student with identical entry-tariff points.
"Score for score, admissions tutors may strongly favour GCE (General Certificate of Education) over VCE (Vocational Certificate of Education) students," the study said. "They are 50 per cent more likely to accept them for admission." The analysis also found that a student with vocational A levels is 15 per cent less likely to take a graduate job than an equivalent student with academic A levels.
At university, vocational students are 25 per cent more likely to drop out after one year and 8 per cent more likely not to finish their course within four years than students with the same tariff score who took academic A levels.
Weighted data show that 62 per cent of vocational students gain a 2:2, compared with 58 per cent of academic students with the same tariff score. Twenty-nine per cent get a 2:1, against 34 per cent, and 3 per cent get a first, against 4 per cent.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi, said: "The most striking finding is the low number of vocational level-three students admitted by selective universities compared with peers with academic A levels. But considering their lower achievement levels once in higher education, those universities are most likely making reasonable decisions. It is probable that Ucas (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) has miscalibrated the number of tariff points it awards when it treats grades achieved in VCE and GCE A levels as equivalent. Or it could be that vocational qualifications are a poorer preparation for higher education. If so, that could have implications for the new level-three diplomas."